On July 12, 2012, Lizzy wrote, …I had started a short novel a bunch of months back off of an idea that I couldn’t keep in my head any longer. For the first couple days I wrote like a mad women, trying to get down all the ideas flowing through my head. Many pages later I slowed down and finally I stopped. I had come to a ‘dead end.’ I wasn’t out of ideas but the current idea I led off from made me realize something when I came to the ‘dead end,’ I had no idea where the story was leading off to! When I started writing I had a couple of ideas to some events which I wanted to happen but then I realized that I hadn’t really thought of any ‘main problem’ or climax, no real moral, and or no ending. It has been months since I have touched the story and I really want to get back into it. Should I edit up what I have, start anew or continue where I left? Have any advice?
I’ve been listening to Brandon Sanderson’s lectures online that Caitlyn recommended. This will soon be relevant for Lizzy’s question, but as an aside, the lectures are quite interesting although I suspect not complete, which makes sense, since students pay for the real thing. Quite a few are devoted to publishing, especially to publishing fantasy and science fiction. For those of you who are at that point you may find the information very helpful. Mr. Sanderson’s experience is more up to date than mine, since I broke in in 1997, which now seems an age ago. The link again is, www.writeaboutdragons.com.
Back to Lizzy. Mr. Sanderson describes two kinds of writers, those who outline and those who don’t. Those who don’t he calls discoverers, and I count myself in that category. We “discover” our stories as we write. The trouble is, we can get lost. We wander around and start over and over and over. (Outliners have problems of their own, according to Mr. Sanderson.)
Before I start writing a book itself I write notes, which is the closest I come to outlining, and the distance is still vast. Usually by the time I think I have a solid idea and often a vague notion of the end, a beginning comes to me and I plunge in. But because I haven’t thought the whole thing through I make disastrous mistakes. I call it getting stupid. I’ve mentioned here that I wrote about 140 pages of the new mystery while forgetting to include any suspects and then about 260 pages of the same mystery. This time there were plenty of suspects but the mystery couldn’t be solved. Sigh. I went back to the beginning.
In my mistakes, however, I generally find something that leads me in the right direction that takes me finally through to the end. It’s not efficient. Obviously! I’m always hoping that the next book will run more smoothly.
And some have. A simple story shape is easiest for me. I don’t mean a simple story, just the shape. If I can see the arc I can throw in complications galore and still see my way through. My historical novel Dave at Night has such a shape. Dave, an orphan, needs a home. Everything that happens (mostly) has bearing on that essential problem. In Ever Kezi is on a quest to find her future – pretty straightforward. Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep is based on “Sleeping Beauty.” What could be simpler? It was a blast to write.
So for Lizzy and others with our problem, I suggest you think about your story shape. Even the books I had trouble with, like The Two Princess of Bamarre, for example, became possible once I found my story shape, in this case a quest for the cure to the Gray Death in time to save Addie’s sister, Meryl.
Since you haven’t looked at your manuscript in months, you might start by reading through it. If you can resist jumping in, just think about what you have. Write notes. Ask yourself questions that will help you continue. Here are some question suggestions:
What’s the main character’s main problem? You may not know, so other questions follow. What are all her problems? Which seems the most significant, the one that can sustain a lot of spin-off problems, that suggests more events in your story?
Who is your main? If you don’t know, who interests you the most? For whom do you feel the most sympathy, care about the most? Whose company do you enjoy the most? (That doesn’t have to be your main, but most often it will be.)
If what you have seems like a hopeless mess, stop calling your story names! But is there something, some incident, bit of dialogue, thought monologue, that pleases you? Where might it lead? Is that your story?
What does your main want? What, among your pages, have you thrown up as obstacles to the achievement of her desire? What else can you come up with?
What would finally solve the problem, happily or tragically? What might three alternative endings be? Think of two more after that. Which satisfies you the most?
Imagine an epilogue (which you may not need when you get there). Who would be there? What would the mood be?
An organized person, reading this post, would likely roll his eyes and say, Why didn’t you ask yourself all these questions and answer them before you started?
Because discoverers don’t work that way. We throw out lots of bait and let our stories find us.
The answer to the questions Lizzy ended with may be obvious by the time you finish answering mine. If not, I have an opinion. If it’s possible to just keep going and not start over, I think that’s best, because it will get you quickest to the end and the pleasure of revising, since most discoverers love to revise. It’s our great strength – if we don’t get so obsessed that we can never release our story.
But if your fingers feel paralyzed and your brain turns to mush whenever you try to continue (this happens to me), then probably you need to start over. It’s what I do when I must.
Here are two prompts:
∙ An outliner and a discoverer meet at a party. They hit it off, find that they both love the same books and both are writing a post-apocalyptic fantasy. In a burst of mad enthusiasm they decide to collaborate, but when they meet to discuss what they want to do, everything starts to fall apart. Write the scene. Keep going for a story of friendship or love or hatred.
∙ Start with a chase. Irena is fleeing a creature with the body of a horse, the head of a snake, and the spiked spine of certain dinosaurs. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Pasten is in a mud wrestling contest with the champion from their rival village, who does not fight fair. And her sister is at home, surrounded by three men from the rival village. Sew all this together into a coherent story, asking yourself the questions I ask above.
Have fun, and save what you write!